In Conversation With
Polly Morgan (b. 1980) creates still life sculptures with the animal as subject.
A member of the Guild of Taxidermists, Morgan’s intention has never been to
mimic the natural habitat of animals as they are traditionally displayed,
but to place them in less expected scenery. www.allvisualarts.org.
You studied English at university; what first led you to art and more specifically taxidermy?
It’s very hard to answer that. It feels like a confluence of events that led to taxidermy and art, rather than one instance. To be honest, I was never squeamish or freaked out by dead animals after growing up in the countryside. I tended to do the opposite of what was considered normal or fashionable. While at university, I worked in a bar in East London during a period when many artists were living, working and drinking, and I soaked up these influences like a sponge. I wanted to furnish my flat but I couldn’t afford to buy taxidermy so I looked into making it. I could go on forever, because there seem to be so many catalysts but no real answer as to “why?”
All of your taxidermied animals are either road casualties or have suffered natural or unpreventable deaths; is this purely an ethical decision?
It was for a number of reasons really. I love animals yet eat meat so I am not guilt-free where their deaths are concerned. However, eating meat is a very natural thing whereas very early on I recognised the absurdity of killing an animal in order to attempt to re-animate it. This seemed perverse to me. I also don’t want to be targeted by animal rights militants or feel a hollow victory when I profit from the extinction of a creature. I have used animals that have been killed; I just always try to make sure they are a by-product of pest-control or farming. It’s pure laziness not to source your animals properly. Much of my job is taken up with sourcing things.
Your show at All Visual Arts raises questions about the visceral and uncompromising cycle of life; could you talk us through the work you will be showing in Endless Plains?
As a centrepiece, I am showing a cast rotten tree lying on its side. Suckling the trunk from branch stubs below are 7 piglets, sap running down their chins like milk. Phallic pink mushrooms grow from the splits in the bark, which are in turn eaten by birds. Alongside this will be a dead stag, hollowed out from the inside, and some cremated birds with their nests painted with their ashes.
Curator Rachel Poliquin commented that taxidermied animals are “inherently philosophical”. Can you expand on this idea?
If done well, taxidermy can be like holding up a mirror to life. Seeing something that is dead mimic life so well is a difficult thing to compute. I find it exciting, life-affirming and calming to look at. Perhaps I would even like to see humans this way if they were possible to capture as convincingly as taxidermy can capture animals. I know I felt very touched by Ron Mueck’s Dead Dad when I first saw it and his work imitates human life far better than embalming techniques ever could.
Do you see yourself always working in this medium or would you move into another discipline within contemporary art?
I have already begun casting (piglets and mushrooms in silicone and plastic) and drawing (for etches and in ash). I can see that before long I will make sculptures that don’t contain any taxidermy. For some of the work in this next show it has become secondary. For the first time I have begun to feel slightly limited by it. The moment I had an idea and found myself trying to shoehorn in a bit of taxidermy was when I realised I would have to move on soon. I don’t think I’ll ever give up taxidermy or stop using it altogether as I love the process.
How do you select the vessels and containers you use in your work? How important is the marriage of object to taxidermy in your work?
It’s very important to me. It isn’t just to do with the shape, size and colour of the accompanying objects, or even their purpose; it is very much to do with the juxtaposition of different textures. I have made a dead fox, which I was going to display with chicks bursting from it like maggots, but the texture of the chicks was too similar to that of the fox and it didn’t work aesthetically. I have ended up using a cast of an octopus instead, as its plump, shiny pink fleshiness works so much better against the fur. This isn’t something I can explain easily. I have synaesthesia, where I see numbers, days, months and names in colours, and I sometimes wonder whether this has informed my work as an artist because I do have quite visceral reactions to the presentation of things.
After the show, what are you most looking forward to?
I am most looking forward to a quiet summer after a furious amount of work throughout the past six months. My brain needs to lie fallow for a while and grow some new seeds.